Under the glow of the late-afternoon sun on an April Saturday in Gulf Shores, Ala., American Volleyball Coaches Association Executive Director Kathy DeBoer praised a group of young women she called “pioneers.”
These 20-year-olds only half the age of Title IX had just drawn a line in the sand for a new sport coming soon to a campus near you.
At least that’s the plan.
Kathy DeBoer addresses the women participating in the first collegiate sand volleyball championship tournament as pioneers in their sport.
In front of curious college administrators, a CBS College Sports crew and hundreds of sun-baked and colorfully garbed fans (some less clad than others), the inaugural American Volleyball Coaches Association Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship made more than a granular splash.
About 50 barefoot gladiators from 10 NCAA schools blazed the trail DeBoer and other advocates for the game had hoped they would. The sport that only two years ago was approved as an emerging one for women in Divisions I and II finally got its feet wet on dry ground.
It was groundbreaking, to be sure. For anyone who has simply struggled just to walk in the sand, these women made the glinting waves of grains look like a bounce house, leaping for kills and blocks, diving for digs and scrambling for saves. The athleticism on display from these players in full uniform (not bikinis) dispelled the sport’s sexy perception without diminishing its overall appeal.
Fifteen programs – all in Division I – completed sand’s first season as a varsity sport last spring, culminating in the April 27-29 championship the AVCA sponsored to give those pioneers a postseason experience and prospective schools an invitation to volley along. That incentive was fortified when CBS cameras swooped in for the team finals and pairs competition. The package was broadcast on delay in two appealing, one-hour shows in June.
Not bad for a sport that had to survive an override vote in Division I just to get on the books.
“We never let on from the time sand was trying to be an emerging sport that there was ever any doubt that it could be a viable collegiate sport,” DeBoer said a couple of weeks after the AVCA championship sand had settled. “But now that we’re at this point, you can kind of admit that there were times when we weren’t sure.”
Florida State head coach Danalee Corso was certain from the start. She was the first full-time sand coach hired on the collegiate scene last fall. While other first-year programs were borrowing heavily from their indoor counterparts, Corso’s crew featured nine sand-only players who had trained enough by the start of the regular season to make even the California schools jealous.
“At first, none of the indoor players wanted to play sand because they were so beat from their long season,” Corso said. “But Chris (Poole, Florida State’s indoor coach) eventually wanted all of them to play. So it ended up being an interesting mix of indoor players who took it on as a ‘fun’ thing to do and the sand players who treated it as their primary sport.”
Long Beach State was at the other end of the spectrum. Indoor coach Brian Gimmillaro, who took on double duty with the sand squad, had players with sand experience (after all, they attend the only NCAA school with “Beach” in its name), but none was on a sand scholarship. Gimmillaro’s sand team was his indoor team – and the 49ers almost won the inaugural title.
The team that did win – Pepperdine – had two scholarship players who ended up procuring the pairs title, too. But even they were converted indoor stars.
“Some people assumed that all of the players on my sand team, since we’re in California, had played beach volleyball,” said Nina Matthies, who ended up coaching both sports for the Waves. “But until one or two years ago, none of them had because they were all too busy playing indoor.”
Top: Pairs compete on the five-court layout during the inaugural AVCA tournament. Above: Teams from Pepperdine, Long Beach State, Florida State and the College of Charleston pose before the finals.
As with anything new, perhaps the most important first step is to shed some growing pains. Like they say, the best thing about being a freshman is becoming a sophomore. Or like DeBoer said, “When you do something that has never been done before, you have to have a degree of comfort with uncertainty.”
To be certain, the first season of sand shored up some loose ends.
First, it was a completely different sport. Among the fears during sand’s pre-emerging stage was that it was simply “indoor volleyball on a beach” and wouldn’t open new opportunities like the emerging-sports program is supposed to do. “It’s not just the same players doing the same things,” DeBoer said of sand.
Pepperdine raises the trophy after winning the team championship.
One of those players has a couple of trophies now to show for it. Pepperdine junior Caitlin Racich teamed with freshman Summer Ross (both of whom are sand-only players) to win the AVCA pairs championship a day after the Waves won the team title.
“Indoor is such a specialized sport,” said Racich, who spent two years on the Waves’ indoor team. “You have your servers. You have those who defend and pass. You have hitters and setters. But on sand you have to be such a well-rounded player because you do everything. You serve, you set, you pass – it’s all so important.”
The ball is also heavier, and the court is smaller. The open hand tipping allowed indoors is not in the sand. Sand also counts the “block touch” as the first of the three allowable contacts. Sand players switch sides of the court every seven points (every five in a 15-point set) to mitigate the effects of the sun and wind.
Each team competition is called a “dual” and consists of five matches of pairs. The winning team must take three of the five pairs matches that are played as best-of-three-set competitions. DeBoer said coaches and players loved the format.
“There’s no other time in volleyball where your No. 9 and 10 players are as important as your 1s and 2s,” she said. “I heard more than one coach talk about how motivated the athletes were to get better because they could point.”
What complicates these early years is that the sand game – despite being vastly different from indoor – relies on indoor players to prime its participant pump. Teams were allowed only three sand scholarships this first year, which increases by one for the next three years until the full complement of six is reached. Sand is an equivalency sport as opposed to its head-count indoor sister. Sand players on scholarship cannot be on an indoor roster, but the reverse is allowed.
That “shared roster” mentality initially scared coaches who were concerned about the resulting impact on indoor, especially on the sport’s nontraditional season in the spring.
Team finalists Pepperdine and Long Beach State engage in hand-to-hand combat at the net.
Pepperdine’s Matthies and Long Beach State’s Gimmillaro were among coaches who led both teams and had to balance that relationship themselves. Stetson head coach Tim Loesch was another. While some schools used most of their indoor team to field a sand roster, Stetson had seven sand-only players, along with seven who played both. Loesch found that beneficial.
“Having players on both not only helps connect those two teams but it also helps indoor players improve their athleticism, their vertical and their ball control,” he said. “The two sports complement each other, and the cross-training helps players develop instead of just plateau by doing the same thing.”
But it was a long haul for coaches who oversaw both squads. DeBoer acknowledged a concern early on about burnout and fatigue from both players and coaches. She said she hasn’t heard much on the burnout side, but as for fatigue, yes. “Tom Black at Loyola Marymount told me he’s had the best six weeks of his coaching career,” she said. “But he also said – as have others – that they’re exhausted. They liked what they saw, though.”
Some of what they saw was a new “spring” in their players’ steps. While the nontraditional season can be a grind to motivate players, those who played sand sprang to new life.
Also, because the sports are so different, the sand game exposes an indoor player’s deficiencies, which can be valuable for those who consider the offseason an opportunity to improve.
“When there are six kids on the court and someone is out of position passing, it may not be obvious,” DeBoer said. “But when it’s two on sand, it’s obvious who is deficient at what. And it’s usually the player looking at the coach asking, ‘Will you help me get better at this?’ rather than, ‘Will you stop whining at me?’ ”
Perhaps the most important thing sand’s first season accomplished was simply establishing a presence. It’s not just a concept anymore – this first season really happened.
DeBoer said: “What 2012 proved is that, yes, this sport is a perfect fit for colleges, and it is very popular. Women really want to play it. People who perhaps had been afraid of it before are now accepting it for what it is and shifting toward seeing what the advantages of adding it are.”
Sand volleyball not only provides opportunities for new players, it is responsible for resurrecting at least one student-athlete’s love of the game. Mallory Kiley, a senior at Florida State, began her indoor career at East Tennessee State but then left the sport and transferred to Tallahassee. After a year away from the court, she missed it enough to try again. That lasted only a year, as well. But after the second yearlong hiatus, Kiley was invited to give Florida State’s new sand team a try.
“It was a second chance for me to get back in the game. I had very little experience with sand before, other than a couple of tournaments in high school, but I was never trained as a sand player. I love it now, though. There’s way more to this sport than I ever imagined.
“It’s completely different – you’d think it was just indoor volleyball on the sand, but there’s way more to it. There’s less of a pattern in the sand game and more free-flowing play, but you need to have all the skills in sand, as opposed to specializing in indoor. A lot of girls think they just need to be tall and do their job at the net in indoor. In the sand, you need to be more dynamic.
“There’s a big future for sand. Look at how far we came this year with only a few players who had sand experience. And as for other schools, now that they’ve seen how successful these events can be, they might see that adding sand will only make their indoor teams better.
“Personally, when I went from sand to the indoor court, I felt better. I felt lighter on my feet and was able to jump higher. A lot of coaches worry about the effect on timing in blocking and hitting, since weather and wind affect the sand game so much, so defensive specialists in the sand have to target their sets differently, while indoor it’s just to one place. But personally as a player, I think sand helped my overall game. I think more people will see that.”
Coaches are seeing that shift in their peers, too. Pepperdine’s Matthies, who was the first female scholarship player in the UCLA volleyball program, said she knows there are still detractors, but she’s taking an optimistic approach.
“A lot of people sat back and watched how this inaugural season played out,” she said. “I’m hoping that new student-athletes who are attracted to this kind of game will decide this is what they want to do and in the end drive institutional decisions to accommodate those interests.”
Loesch at Stetson hopes the fears that spurred the override have subsided. The reluctance appeared to be based on recruiting and competitive equity more than anything else.
“Some coaches thought there were going to be some very good indoor players who want to do both, and if they couldn’t do it at that school, they’d go somewhere else,” he said, citing as an example Pepperdine’s Ross, a highly recruited indoor player who transferred from Washington to play sand. “But hopefully instead of a negative, people will look at that as a reason to add sand.”
Seven more schools, including the first Division II program (Grand Canyon), have announced they are adding sand for 2013. Few people in the game right now doubt that the sport will have trouble achieving the 40 schools necessary for NCAA championship status. Some think it could happen in as little as three years.
Sponsorship probably will be amoeba-like from the South and West. DeBoer said she has talked with a few major programs in the Midwest that are looking at maps to see if they can assemble a playing schedule that makes sense.
Momentum figures to build as the relationship between sand and indoor becomes clearer. And that will take some time. Schools will need to decide whether to hire separate coaching staffs and how to handle the spring.
Long Beach State’s Gimmillaro said coaches are simply going to have to reconcile what the benefit will be for indoor.
“Will sand help? It should, but you do lose a lot of the nontraditional segment because of it,” he said. “But we’ll have to see whether the sand participation benefits those indoor players in the fall.”
As to schools that don’t have both fearing a drop in recruiting for indoor, Gimmillaro said that might be exaggerated.
“We’re talking about a limited number of scholarships – and remember that anyone on a sand scholarship can’t play indoor,” he said. “There’s not going to be a recruiting advantage for your indoor team if you have sand, because once they’re receiving aid on your sand team they’re off your indoor team. You still have 12 scholarships to give indoor.
“Let’s say you give a scholarship to an indoor player and she plays sand, too – well, that’s OK but you’re not going to get any more kids because of it. And remember, the reason you add the sport is to provide opportunities, not because you’re ‘scared’ into it.”
As prospects learn more about sand’s potential at the collegiate level and understand there are scholarship opportunities to be had, that recruiting pool will fill. Eventually, perhaps soon, coaches believe there will be separate talent bases and the shared-roster concerns will wane. For now, though, sand still has its benefits.
“For me personally, since I’ve played sand volleyball for as long as I’ve played indoor, sand helps my indoor game,” said AVCA pairs champion Racich from Pepperdine. “You get back from having played sand all summer and all of the sudden you’re jumping twice as high. The sand gets you in such amazing shape.
A celebratory title splash refreshes the Pepperdine Waves after a hot day on the sand.
“Coaches may worry about the timing involved in the game because the ball is a different size and the wind is a factor, but I personally think sand helps indoor. As the sport continues to grow, there are definitely girls out there who are going to be excited to know that they can play sand in college. And there’ll still be lots of girls who prefer indoor. But it’s so amazing that the opportunity is there now that you can decide which one to pursue.”
For DeBoer, that was the point. Research showed that girls wanted this opportunity. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, participation in sand volleyball grew by more than 25 percent in 2008 and 2009, and more than 300,000 girls younger than 18 were playing in the sand.
The AVCA is going to keep sponsoring a championship until the NCAA begins sponsoring one. DeBoer said she’s not sure whether Gulf Shores could be a regular site or whether there’s merit in moving the event around. But sand players will have some kind of championship to anticipate for the foreseeable future.
And that future, DeBoer believes, is as bright as the reflection off the white Gulf Shores sand.
“What we’ve said right from the beginning is if the addition of sand volleyball to the emerging-sports list means that in 10 years there’s another 100,000 to 250,000 girls playing volleyball (court or sand), then this is a great idea,” she said. “If the number of girls playing volleyball is exactly the same 10 years from now and we’re splitting the talent pool between two sports, then this was a terrible idea.
“But with one season under our belt, there’s already reason to believe that first scenario is the one we’re quickly going to get.”
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.